Of Elul, L'David, and Golems
There is near universal Ashkenazic custom during the month of Elul to recite the Chapter of Tehillim (27) “L’Dovid Hashem Ori” during davening, both every morning and evening, and all the way up to Shmini Atzeres, as preparation for the Yomim Noraim. This custom is based on the Midrash Shochar Tov that elucidates that various phrases of this chapter contain allusions to the holidays of the repentance period - Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos, as well as to the month of Elul itself.
The Malbim, in his commentary on Tehillim, offers an alternate explanation. In this chapter, Dovid HaMelech, the author of Tehillim, asked to cleave to Hashem and that all obstacles that block coming close to Him should be removed. The Malbim explains that when we strive to do so, Hashem will attach Himself to us with a higher level of personalized supervision. It is thus quite apropos to recite “L’Dovid” during the month of Elul, whose name hints to the acronym “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li - I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me”(Shir HaShirim Ch. 6, verse 3). Elul is a month which symbolizes our relationship to Hashem, and one in which proper repentance is more readily accepted.
Where’s the source?
But, the obvious question is where and when did this minhag start? It is not mentioned in the Gemara, nor in the Rishonim, and not even referenced in the Shulchan Aruch or its main commentaries. It seems a bit odd that such a common custom would not stem from a primary source! Much research has been done and many works have been written to try to find the earliest source for this meaningful minhag.
Although many erroneously concluded that the original source of reciting “L’Dovid” throughout the entire month of Elul was the controversial ‘Chemdas Yamim’, first printed in 1731, however, history has since proven that an earlier source has been found. Many now attribute this minhag to the noted Kabbalist and famed author of “Amtachas Binyomin”, Rav Binyomin Beinish Cohen, in his sefer “Shem Tov Kattan”, first printed in 1706. There he writes that one should be scrupulous with reciting “L’Dovid” daily from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Simchas Torah, averring that this has the potential to avert and even nullify Heavenly decrees.
Yet, there is possibly an earlier source. In the sefer “Nezer Hakodesh - Minhagei Beis Ropschitz” a story is told about the Baal Shem Tov, where he mentioned a Tzaddik, known as Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem, who had saved the Jews of a certain town from eviction by successfully promising the childless non-Jewish mayor a son within a year. The Baal Shem Tov mentioned that this Tzaddik who lived in the late 1600s, was the one who established the custom of reciting “L’Dovid” during Elul. However, it is unclear whom exactly he was referring to.
Although much detailed information has been obscured with the passage of time, still history has shown that there were two Tzaddikim known by this name. The better known of the two was Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm, a talmid of the great Maharshal, Rav Shlomo Luria, and an ancestor of the luminariescommonly known as the Chacham Tzvi (Rav Tzvi Ashkenazi) and his son, the Ya’avetz (Rav Yaakov Emden).
A Golem as a Tzenter?
Here is where it gets interesting. Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm was best known for being of such stature that he created a Golem. In fact, both of his aforementioned illustrious descendents have written responsa on the topic of the Golem that their grandfather created. The Chid”a, in his encyclopedia of Gedolim throughout Jewish history, ‘Shem Gedolim’ also attested to its existence.
But before our readers decry the supernatural turn this article has taken, they should realize that Golems actually do have a place in the halachic realm as well. The issue that these Gedolim were debating was whether a Golem can count for a minyan! Although the Chacham Tzvi (Shu”t Chacham Tzvi 93) at first remained undecided, his son, Rav Yaakov Emden (Shu”t Sheilas Ya’avetz vol. 2, 82) ruled unequivocally that a Golem cannot count for a minyan! Apparently not just a theoretical topic, it is even cited and debated by such contemporary authorities as the Mishna Berura (55, 4) and the Chazon Ish (Yoreh Deah 116, 1)!
The Mishna Berura does not actually rule, but rather addresses the issue and concludes that it is a safek; which is actually the main thrust of the Chacham Tzvi’s teshuva – that he personally was undecided as to the proper halacha. Although the majority consensus is that a Golem would not count for a minyan, there were several other authorities who defended the Chacham Tzvi’s logicallowing a Golem able to count for a minyan.
The Chazon Ish, conversely, concluded akin to the Ya’avetz’s position, that a Golem would undeniably not be able to count for a minyan, as it not only would be excluded from the rights and privileges of a Jew, but even from those of a human being. One of Rav Yaakov Emden’s main proofs to this is that we find that in order to be considered having a neshama, a creation needs to have the potential for speech [see, for example the Ramban’s commentary to Parshas Bereishis (Ch. 2, verse 7; based on Targum Onkelus ad loc.)], an ability a Golem sorely lacks.
What is lesser known (and actually seemingly unknown to many later authorities, including the Mishna Berura) is that posthumously, another son of the Chacham Tzvi, Rav Meshulem Ashkenazi, in his responsa, appended and printed a later teshuva from his father (Shu”t Divrei HaRav Meshulem vol. 1, 10 s.v. shayach); in it the Chacham Tzvi actually retracted his original position and ruled strictly as well. Either way, and regardless of what one might want to assume about his fellow mispallelim, the vast majority of poskim rule conclusively that a Golem cannot be counted for a minyan.
The Second Rav Eliyahu
Back to figuring out who originated the recital of “L’Dovid” in Elul. The other Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem was Rav Eliyahu Luentz, known as a master Kabbalist in the 17th century. He authored a seminal volume on the Zohar titled “Aderes Eliyahu”, and was a disciple of my ancestor and namesake, the renowned Maharal M’Prague, (who, as an intresting side point, and incredible works aside, is regrettably nowadays best ‘known’ for having also created a Golem).
In conclusion, although we are left uncertain as to whom the originator of this powerful minhag was, we can rest assured that it has a reliable source. We can thus appreciate the significance of saying this chapter of Tehillim throughout Elul, as it underscores the major goals of the season of repentance.
Postscript: There are a few communities, including many of Germanic origin, and the Chassidic communities of Sanz, Bobov, and Kamarna, however, who do not recite “L’Dovid” during Elul. See Shu”t Divrei Moshe (34), and sefer Minhagei Kamarna, (printed in the back of Shulchan HaTahor; Elul, 381), as well as Likutei Eliezer (pg. 5, footnotes 30 - 31). The Kamarna Rebbe of Yerushalayim, recently told this author that although in his shul “L’Dovid” is recited, as most of his congregation are not his Chassidim and nearly everyone’s custom is to recite it, nevertheless, he personally does not. It is also known that the Vilna Gaon did not approve of this addition to davening (Maaseh Rav 53) as it possibly constitutes ‘tircha d’tzibura’. The general Sefardi minhag as well is not to recite “L’Dovid” specially during Elul, but many nonetheless recite it all year long as an addition after Shacharis; see Rav Mordechai Eliyahu’s Darchei Halacha glosses to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (128, footnote 4).
Much of this article is based on Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s fascinating sefer Likutei Eliezer - Ch. 1.
This article was written L’Iluy Nishmas R’ Chaim Baruch Yehuda ben Dovid Tzvi, L’Refuah Sheleimah for R’ Shlomo Yoel ben Chaya Leah and l’zechus Yaacov Tzvi ben Rivka and Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam v’chol yotzei chalatzeha for a yeshua sheleimah!
For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: email@example.com.
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U' Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim. He also currently writes a contemporary halacha column for the Ohr Somayach website titled “Insights Into Halacha”. http://ohr.edu/this_week/insights_into_halacha/.
See Matteh Ephraim (581, 6), Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Siddur, Hilchos Krias Shma U’Tefillah), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (128, 2), Mishna Berura (581, 2), Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin’s Shu”t Gevuros Eliyahu (Orach Chaim 155, 1; based on his annual Ezras Torah Luach, Ikrei Dinei Chodesh Elul), and Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky’s annual Luach Eretz Yisrael (Rosh Chodesh Elul).
Midrash Shochar Tov (Tehillim Ch.27).
See Rabbi Elchanan Shoff’s V’ani BaHashem Atzapeh (pg. 71, footnote 13), quoting Rav Chaim Falag’i.
Malbim (introduction to Tehillim Chapter 27); quoted in Awesome Days (pg. 31).
See the Mishna Berura’s introduction to Orach Chaim 581.
For long list of recent works addressing this see Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s Likutei Eliezer (pg. 1, footnote 2).
See, for example Katzeh HaMatteh (Glosses on the Matteh Efraim 581, 13) and Likutei Eliezer (pg. 4).
Cited in Likutei Eliezer (pg. 7).
Likutei Eliezer ibid.
For more on this topic see Yeshurun (vol. 17, pg. 665 - 666), in the article by Rabbi M.D. Chichik about Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem from Chelm. In fact, the story of Rav Eliyahu and his Golem was recently adapted as a hardcover comic book entitled "The Golem of Chelm – Hayah V'Nivra".
Shem Gedolim (vol. 1, Ma'areches Gedolim - Ma’areches Alef, 166).
Although the majority consensus is that a Golem would not count for a minyan (as detailed in the next footnote), there were several other authorities who defended the Chacham Tzvi’s tzad that a Golem would be able to count for a minyan, including Rav Yosef Engel (Gilyonei HaShas, Sanhedrin 19b s.v. sham maaleh alav) and the Likutei Chaver Ben Chaim (vol. 5, pg. 64a, comments on Chacham Tzvi 93), who dismisses one of the Chid”a’s counter-arguments, explaining that even a Golem should need to be 13 years old from the day he was created to count for a minyan! See also Shu”t B’tzeil HaChochma (vol. 6, 99 s.v. uvmch”t) who explains that the very fact that the Chacham Tzvi was originally mesupak whether a Golem can be included as part of Bnei Yisrael and count for a minyan (and although not the halacha l’maaseh) shows that he held that a Golem is mechuyev b’mitzvos; otherwise, there is no hava amina to count him for a minyan! However, it is important to note that although it was apparently not known to the Mishna Berura nor these authorities, the Chacham Tzvi actually later retracted his position!
Including the Chid”a (Birkei Yosef, Orach Chaim 55, 4 s.v. u'lmai, Machazik Bracha ad loc, Tzavarei Shalal to Parshas Va’eschanan, Midbar Kedmos - Maareches Yud, 27, and sefer Maris HaAyin on Sanhedrin 65; also quoting the Chessed L’Alafim), the Ikrei HaDat (Ikrei Dinim, Orach Chaim 3, 15), the Rogatchover Gaon (Shu”t Tzafnas Paneach vol. 2, 7), the Kaf HaChaim (Orach Chaim 55, 12), the Rivevos Efraim (Shu”t vol. 7, 385; in a teshuva from Rav Yosef Binyamin Tzarfati of Antwerp), and the Minchas Asher (Parshas Noach, 12, 2). Similarly, Rav Tzadok HaKohen M’Lublin, in his sefer written on Torah topics that occurred to him while dreaming (Kuntress Divrei Chalomos, 6; appended to his sefer Resisei Laylah; cited in Rabbi Mordechai Zev Trenk’s ‘Treasures’ pg. 44 - 45), as well, argues that the Ya’avetz’s psak that a Golem cannot be counted for a minyan is the correct ruling. Interestingly, the Mahar”i Assad (Shu”t Yehuda Ya’aleh vol. 1, 26 s.v. v’da), ties this machlokes to the machlokes whether someone sleeping can count for a minyan [Orach Chaim 55, 6; the Taz and Pri Chadash take an opposing viewpoint tothe Shulchan Aruch and Magen Avraham].
Although legends about the Maharal’s Golem have been in print since 1837, the well known stories that captivated the popular imagination were actually first published in the early 20th century (Niflaos HaMaharal) by Rav Yudel Rosenberg, author of the famed Yados Nedarim. He was also known for translating the Zohar into Hebrew, and later served the Av Beis Din of Montreal, Canada. For more on this topic see Prof. Shneur Zalman Leiman’s excellent “R Yudl Rosenberg and the Golem of Prague”, (Tradition vol. 36, 1 - 2002). There is a famous related quote attributed to Rav M. Arik [originally printed in Zer Zahav (Tziternbaum; published in 5693), and later cited in the introduction to Machon Yerushalayim’s recent Chiddushei Maharal M’Prague on Bava Metzia (pg. 14, footnote 1)] that “it is unknown whether the Maharal actually created a Golem. However, to have ‘created’ a talmid of the stature of the Tosafos Yom Tov, is certainly a greater wonder!’
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.
L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!